Kentucky Profiting from Divorce-Proofing Marriages

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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Dying marriages hurt more than just family members. They can cost taxpayers, make communities less attractive to businesses, and even drive up the crime rate. 

That's why some in Kentucky, hurt by the nation's third highest divorce rate, decided to fight back recently by attacking divorce head-on.

They invited to Kentucky Michael McManus - a man whose organization Marriage Savers has found concrete ways to preserve marriages. Then they took him all around the state for five days, meeting with hundreds of pastors in an effort to get them to fight wholeheartedly for solid, lasting marriages.

One Divorce Too Many

Brooke Wilson is an example of how such efforts can pay off. She survived one divorce, but it soured her on marriage for awhile.

"You think 'Oh I love him so much,' and after the first six months, everybody gets comfortable and everyone becomes themselves," she said, which in the case of her marriage revealed a couple who could not live together successfully.

The divorce drove her to ensure it would never happen to her or her two pre-teen daughters again. 

Soon after Dan Gutenson, Brooke's pastor at Watts Chapel Baptist Church in the rural central Kentucky town of Crab Orchard, learned a number of marriage-preserving principles and skills from McManus' Marriage Savers program.

Gutenson felt teaching Brooke and her new man, James, these skills and principles could just about guarantee they would never divorce.

"The people who'd gone through this program, 97 or 98 percent of those who'd gotten married were still married after a number of years," Gutenson said of Marriage Savers.  "That caught my attention."

Before their wedding, Brooke and James Wilson jumped in, going through several sessions of pre-marital counseling and training with Gutenson.

You Train for a Job, Why Not Marriage?

James credits that time with giving their years-long marriage a strong foundation.

"There are a lot of things there that we probably wouldn't have talked about or thought about unless we got that training," he told CBN News.

"We definitely need some training before we get married," Brooke said. "It's just like a job."

McManus traveled to Kentucky this fall hoping that message would turn around a divorce rate so high that about 65 out of a hundred marriages in Kentucky go belly up.

"You think it'd be better being in the Bible belt," Gutenson said. "Sadly, it's not."

"We have just let marriage slide as an American culture," Kent Ostrander, with the Family Foundation, told CBN News. Ostrander is the pro-family leader who took McManus all around for the Kentucky-wide blitz.

"We believe that the Church can turn it around if the pastors, in fact, will roll up their sleeves and make marriage a priority within each congregation," Ostrander said.

McManus and Ostrander called on pastors in every community they visited to create and sign a Community Marriage Covenant. In the covenant, pastors pledge to only marry couples who get pre-marital counseling and to then offer mentors to young or struggling couples.  

Marriage Insurance

McManus guaranteed the churches this would significantly cut their community's divorce rate. His own church in Maryland proved this years ago when it started training and mentoring its own people.

"Of the 230 couples who did marry, we know of only 16 divorces," McManus stated. "So that's better than a 90 percent success rate. That's marriage insurance."

David and Penny Hudson, who run the Marriage Education Resource Center near Louisville, Kentucky, took McManus' training and have been helping marriages for decades..

"We've done together about 140 couples, so we have some experience at this," David Hudson said. "And we have seen nothing but good, positive things come from it."

Penny Hudson said older folks in the pews can help save so many marriages if they will step up and guide the younger couples.  

Investing in Their Eternity

"The pastors can't do it all and they shouldn't be expected to do it all," Penny declared. "The key is getting to the lay people and the lay couples, those who've been married for awhile and who have gone through some experiences and can help these younger couples - walk beside them, pray with them, support them."

"You're investing in their lives for eternity because you will have the opportunity to help them with struggles and lead them back to Christ," David added. "You're not always going to be there. After awhile, they're going to stop coming to us. But Christ is always going to be there for them."

Penny said mentoring certainly helps others, but it also rewards the mentors themselves.

"You will be so blessed by this," she stated. "And it's an outreach opportunity. It's a different way to disciple couples. It's even a different way to evangelize."

Divorce Proofing

McManus trained Pastor Gutenson several years ago on intense pre-marital counseling and mentoring. Gutenson credits it with virtually divorce-proofing the two dozen or so couples who've come to him to get married.

"To the best of my knowledge," he said, "none of those that we've married since we've been doing this program have gotten a divorce."

"Every couple that comes, I say, 'The best gift that you're going to give each other is to come through this counseling,'" the pastor added.

Brooke and James Wilson recalled how Pastor Gutenson took them through more than 150 questions that caused them to look deeply at every area that would come up during a marriage.

"There were several things that we hadn't thought of yet," Brooke admitted. "Parenting styles, argumentative styles and who was going to do what as far as finances go."

"There are a lot of things that don't get asked when couples look at getting married, that they don't think to ask," James added. "I didn't, until we went through that training. Like how are we going to handle the finances?  How are we going to handle existing debts once we're married?  How will I as a stepdad help raise her two daughters?"

"It was good for us," James concluded. 

Brooke said mentors have been a great resource for them since.

"They've been there, done that," she said. "And so they can kind of help push you along into the right path instead of where you shouldn't be going."

Stable Marriages Benefit Kentucky

McManus told CBN News the successful, stable marriages that result don't just benefit the couples, but their whole community and state.

He noted that workers in the middle of divorce tend to be less productive, meaning a community with a high divorce rate is less attractive to businesses.

But a community that can drive down divorce "becomes a much more attractive place for companies to invest because they're going to have less problems with their employees than they would in some other city," McManus said.

McManus said statistics show children of divorce commit more crime. Therefore, if a community's divorce rate goes down, its crime rate will drop as well. He pointed to communities where churches have signed Community Marriage Covenants in years past.

"Austin, Texas, where the divorce rate came down 50 percent in five years: they're the fourth lowest crime rate in the United States," he said.

"And in El Paso where we had a spectacular 79 percent drop in the divorce rate in just five years -- they actually had the lowest crime rate in the United States for the last three years,"  he added.

One of the nastiest results of divorce is that it often drives the ex-wives and their children into poverty and they end up on welfare and all sorts of public assistance.

In Kentucky alone, 24,000 thousand new divorces a year cost state taxpayers a fortune.

Saving Millions in Taxes

"Each year adds $600,000,000 of cost to the taxpayer," McManus stated. "If they could cut their divorce rate by one-third, the taxpayers would be saving $200,000,000 in the first year, then $400,000,000 in the second year because it's cumulative."

So a state and its taxpayers can definitely profit from fighting divorce.

"This is big savings. It has a large payoff," McManus said.

He hoped hundreds of Kentucky pastors took to heart his main message: that churches need to realize divorce hurts their entire state. So they should get together and fight statewide for lasting marriages.

Marriage mentor Penny Hudson said it's time for all congregations and pastors to do their part to make marriages thrive.

"Churches are going to have to be more than just blessing machines and wedding factories," she stated.

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.